May 26, 2016

Prove it!

My previous review of Houdini & Doyle segues nicely into a discussion of apologetics vs. empiricism, or religious belief vs. the scientific method. In Houdini & Doyle, Doyle is the apologist (as is Mulder in The X-Files), while Houdini (Scully) is the questioning empiricist.

The apologist begins with a desired conclusion unalterably in mind. Religious apologists are honestly unapologetic about their faith not being open to question. They "want to believe" and seek out proof for their beliefs, rationalizing any convincing evidence to the contrary.

Most of us fancy ourselves cool, objective empiricists. The truth is, we're all—including scientists—unrepentant apologists.

In a 1953 address at General Electric (my father was in attendance), Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize, Chemistry) recounted several examples of scientists going astray (details here) and observed,

These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions.

Everyone wants to believe his own version of the truth, and digs in his heels the more it is challenged. For the scientist and explorer, that conviction is absolutely necessary in order to soldier on in the face of almost certain failure. And in the face of being flat wrong.

Columbus had to fervently believe in his version of world geography to sail off into the unknown.

The Portuguese dismissed Columbus's grant proposal because they knew his calculations for the circumference of the planet were wrong. Luckily (luck being a big part of the equation), Columbus ran into the Americas. He'd never have made it to India with the ships and supplies he had on hand.

It took another thirty years for Magellan to accomplish what Columbus set out to do (and Magellan didn't make it home alive).

After predicting the existence of radium, it took four years of arduous, dangerous work for Pierre and Marie Curie to isolate one-tenth of a gram of radium from a ton of pitchblende. Marie later died from radiation poisoning and her lab notes from the period are sealed inside lead boxes.

Nobody climbs a Mt. Everest like that doubting she will reach the top. The problem is becoming so converted to a particular outcome that we grow incapable of critical self-examination. It is a very human trait.

Turning to another historical mystery series, the pilot episode of Murdoch Mysteries accurately fictionalizes the efforts of Harold Brown to discredit the alternating current power transmission system developed by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

With the backing of Thomas Edison (who was marketing a competing direct current system), Brown electrocuted dogs in public to demonstrate the dangers of AC. Brown later took these demonstration a gruesome step further, constructing an electric chair to execute a condemned criminal.

The execution went so badly that Westinghouse commented, "They would have done better using an axe." But science be damned, this was a high-stakes economic battle that turned into a religious war, the infamous "War of Currents."

In the end, all the PR stunts in the world couldn't change the fact that Edison's direct current system simply didn't scale. Edison eventually tired of the conflict, quit the electricity generating and transmission business, and left the company that became General Electric.

(Ironically, thanks to modern technology, direct current has since become the preferred long-distance transmission standard, though at the very high voltages Edison railed against.)

Edison had vested interests and investments, and didn't understand polyphase alternating current. He wasn't alone. Tesla was one of the few who did. How might have science advanced in the late 19th century had Edison been willing to form a partnership with Tesla, who was once in his employ?

Edison discovered the vacuum tube in 1880 without realizing what he'd invented. It took another quarter century for British physicist John Ambrose Fleming to figure out what was going on and create the first vacuum tube rectifier.

The late-19th century marked the end of an era when innovative tinkerers like Edison and the great British experimentalist Michael Faraday could produce breakthrough inventions with a scant understanding of higher math or physics.

Faraday had intuitively deduced the existence of electromagnetic fields, what he called "lines of force." But he lacked a way to systematically explain his intuition. Unlike Edison, Faraday wasn't above turning to another genius, mathematician James Clerk Maxwell.
Kepler's Platonic solar system.
The result was "Maxwell's equations," the mathematical foundation of the modern world of electricity and electronics.

Empirical science cannot fall back on gut feelings or a reigning consensus. If science were up to a democratic vote, the Sun would still revolve around the Earth. Even as he proved it wrong, Kepler could not bring himself to reject the consensus Platonic model of the universe.

The consensus was not happy with his findings either, despite how much he qualified them. Kepler's conclusions—that orbiting objects move in ellipses, not in neat Platonic circles—did not find widespread acceptance until after his death.

Science is called a "discipline" because it takes a great deal of discipline to question our most deeply-held convictions. The apologist begins every investigation with no doubt that he is right, the true scientist with the sure knowledge that he is very likely wrong.

Related posts

Houdini & Doyle
"Pathological" and real science
The God complex

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Off Top: Thank you very much for the Twelve Kingdoms translation! It is awesome!
5/30/2016 4:51 AM

# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
I like to use science examples to discuss "invested interest" with my students. My point is that EVERYONE has some invested interest because everyone cares about something. I want them to drop the idea that there is such a thing as an unbiased source--research means finding that one, right, perfect source. Rather, instead, research is about comparing information in sources.

So I tell them about the "discovery" of cold fusion in the late 1980s.

"Okay," I say, "so these are scientists. And they were wrong. Their experiments couldn't be replicated. So why did they declare that they were right?"

I get the following answers:

"Being the first one."
"Going down in history."
"Getting grants from the government."

Human nature is human nature is human nature.
6/01/2016 7:27 PM